I don’t believe it would be good for Saskatchewan to “host” a nuclear waste dump. And there are indications that most Saskatchewan people feel the same way. Past polls have shown widespread opposition to bringing nuclear wastes here, and 80% of those participating in the Uranium Development Partnership (UDP) consultations in 2009 opposed a nuclear dump. But we know that popular democracy doesn’t necessarily win out in these David and Goliath conflicts. So what are the main challenges those wanting a nuclear waste ban will face?
In early February I was asked to speak on a nuclear waste ban at community forums in Saskatoon, Prince Albert and La Ronge. It was no surprise that fifty people came out in La Ronge and that Prince Albert had an even larger meeting than Saskatoon. It would take 18,000 truckloads to move existing and future radioactive high-level wastes (mainly from Ontario) to a northern Saskatchewan dump, and these would all be going nearby Prince Albert and La Ronge, day in and day out, for decades.
I wanted to present information that the broad public will not be getting from the industry’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO). Most people for example have no idea about the magnitude of the transportation that would be required to move 3.6 million fuel bundles across Canada. If people only hear the well-financed, one-sided industry view, there is no possibility of informed consent. And we know industry can be quite skilled at end-running democracy. I also wanted to listen and learn, and I heard a lot of passionate views, especially about the dilemmas facing northern communities. After this trip I am much clearer about what those wanting a nuclear waste ban are up against.
HIDING BEHIND GEOLOGY
The industry argues that caverns dug deep in the Canadian Shield is the safest way to store and ultimately dispose of nuclear wastes. It has been pushing this position since the late 1970s, when AECL, which makes the Candu reactors that create nuclear wastes, started to promote it. The Canadian Shield covers most of Canada, from northern Saskatchewan to the Maritimes, and nuclear wastes are mostly produced in southern Ontario, which is in the Canadian Shield. So why is the NWMO even here? We don’t have nuclear plants, and each time government or industry tries to float a nuclear power plant here, like Bruce Power’s proposal to build two reactors on the North Saskatchewan River, the projects get rejected for a combination of good economic and ecological reasons.
The only reason the nuclear industry is targeting Saskatchewan is because the idea of a nuclear dump has already been rejected elsewhere. AECL found no takers in Ontario in the late 1970s and Manitoba passed a nuclear waste ban in 1987. The NWMO’s recent negotiations with town councils in Ear Falls and Ignace, Ontario, got kiboshed when local people threw the mayors and councils out in the 2010 fall elections. And Quebec has a regulation banning importation of nuclear wastes from other provinces. The industry doesn’t want us to know that the Seaborn inquiry from 1991-98 concluded Canadians did not support geological disposal. Those who see personal-business benefits from having a nuclear dump in northern Saskatchewan argue that since the Canadian Shield here has been stable for so long, it is a safe place to put these wastes. This can sound convincing. But geology is not a predictive science. While knowledge about past geology can provide some foresight about possible future events, it can’t predict them or their timelines. And common sense gets sacrificed in the industry’s promotions. The presumed stability of the rock formation would itself be compromised by the proposed massive drilling and excavation project. The movement of underground water would alter dramatically. The long-term heat and constantly changing, and not necessarily reducing, radioactivity in the nuclear wastes could further compromise the rock. The way the industry promotes its case is a bit like how the pharmaceutical industry downplays adverse side-effects while promoting its lucrative products. The adverse effects of a nuclear dump would however linger forever.
It is foolish to downplay the role that self-interest plays in these promotions. Who would most benefit from such a massive excavation project? The NWMO throws around figures like $24 billon to leave the impression that there would be an explosion of opportunities in places like the Métis community of Pinehouse or the First Nations one at English River/Patunak. Yet few jobs would actually be created on-site and there would be considerable risk to the jobs in the local land-based economy? Most of the economic benefits of such a capital-intensive project would involve the production and transport of the thousands of nuclear waste canisters, the drilling and heavy equipment companies, and geological and engineering consultants. And lots of this talk about benefits remains spin, for the NWMO only has a few billon dollars in the bank. The NWMO’s campaign is being run at the level of perception, not hard or comparative economics. When full-costing is done, this mega-project looks more and more absurd. However, economic spin can work and those who favour a nuclear waste ban will have to directly challenge this spin and support northerners in their quest for sustainable alternatives.
The nuclear industry’s incremental expansion presents an even more difficult challenge. Even though the impacts come from the whole nuclear fuel system, from uranium mining and refining to nuclear plants, it is never assessed as a whole. The cumulative effects get ignored.
Thankfully the broader public is catching on. In late 2010 seventy municipalities and First Nations along the Great Lakes opposed Bruce Power shipping radioactive boilers from its Ontario nuclear reactors to Sweden. Even though the regulatory body, the CNSC, predictably approved Bruce Power’s plan, opposition remains strong. There is great concern that this plan will set a precedent for transporting nuclear wastes, and more people are becoming aware of the dangers of transporting high-level radioactive wastes across Canada en route to a nuclear dump in Saskatchewan’s north.
The industry downplays this bigger picture. Short-term benefits are targeted at economically-vulnerable communities, which is why the NWMO is shopping around Saskatchewan’s north. An objective, retroactive analysis is helpful. For example, uranium mine expansion in the late 1970s was promoted as bringing unprecedented economic benefits to northerners. Yet after the expansion of the uranium industry over three decades, northern Saskatchewan remains in the same position, as Canada’s second poorest region. The main legacy of uranium mining will be long-term radioactive tailings.
To win a nuclear waste ban we’ll have to learn from the past and better think ahead. The motive for the industry creating a central storage area has always included retrieving nuclear wastes to get plutonium. If a northern community agreed to host Ontario’s nuclear wastes, then the north would become the only realistic site for a nuclear waste reprocessing plant. Reprocessing is banned in the U.S. and elsewhere because it is extremely costly, involves extensive radioactive contamination and increases the risk of weapons proliferation. If a nuclear dump is created here, the north would be well on its way to becoming the nuclear waste industrial corridor for Canada and perhaps even for the U.S., which has no viable nuclear waste plan. Is that what we want for northern Saskatchewan?
Next time I’ll look at the role colonial mentality is playing in the nuclear waste controversy.